Doug Muir here, blogging from Tirana, Albania, where I’ll be for the rest of this week.

Albania is, as we all know, in a dead heat with Moldova for the not-coveted title of Europe’s Poorest Country. But downtown Tirana is surprisingly peppy: coffeeshops, restaurants, tree-lined boulevards, nightclubs, parks. Granted, non-downtown Tirana is concrete blocks and shanty towns. But the center of the city is actually quite nice.

Also, Albania lies on the right side of the line that separates “good Balkan food” (Greece, Turkey) from “horrible Balkan food” (Serbia, Romania).

Albania is nominally a majority Muslim country, but in Tirana they take their Islam lightly. I’ve yet to see a woman wearing a headscarf, never mind a veil, and the bars and coffeeshops are full of people casually drinking raki and the perfectly acceptable local beer. There are also large Catholic and Orthodox minorities; there’s a big Catholic church down the street from me, and when the new Pope was elected last month, bells rang all over the city.

There are a lot of shaven-headed young men driving Mercedes sedans while talking on their cell phones. Albania is supposed to be the stolen car center of Europe. A casual stroll around central Tirana suggests that this is entirely plausible. There are a lot of BMWs and Mercedes. (The high end Volkswagon models are also popular.)

It’s been suggested that some of Tirana’s pep is coming from Italian and Albanian organized crime, laundering their money in a city where oversight is not so stringent.

If work permits, I hope to get outside of Tirana for a couple of short trips. And Albania will have a general election next month, and I hope to blog about that.

Meanwhile, why not make this an open thread for all things Albania-related? Anyone?